Remember the first time you heard the story of Pinocchio – the precocious puppet who just wanted to be a real boy? But every time Pinocchio fibbed on his way to boyhood, his nose would inch longer. And you might have reached up to touch your own the next time you told a half-truth. Such is the power of a well-told tale: Whether it’s with a fictional character or a real person, kids begin to understand their own behavior through the lens of the personalities they encounter in books.
Books have a gentle power to relay messages about character. They help children learn from the examples of others so they can make improvements in their own lives. While we all have our favorites, here are 10 classic children’s books that are sure to inspire your kids.
A bored boy who’s tending his sheep rallies villagers to his aid by telling them he spotted a wolf encroaching on his herd. Only, there is no wolf. After fooling the villagers several times, no one came when the boy finally did encounter a wolf.
Life lesson: Honesty
The famous tale from ancient Greek storyteller Aesop has been retold and refashioned countless times to encourage hearers to be wary of lying – from cartoons to a Nickelodeon made-for-TV movie, The Boy Who Called Werewolf. The tragic tale reveals the consequences that come when someone thinks telling a lie is OK as long as it’s all in good fun.
By Mark Twain
Young, rough-and-tumble Huckleberry “Huck” Finn befriends a runaway slave, Jim, in the pre-Civil War South. Together, the two embark on adventures as they travel down the Mississippi River. Huck is fleeing from his drunkard, abusive father, while Jim seeks to gain his freedom.
Life lesson: The value of friendship
At first, what brings Huck and Jim to one another is the act of escaping. But over the course of the novel, readers come to appreciate the love and selflessness that each character has for the other – sacrificing to protect the other. Ultimately, it’s their shared sense of adventure, and the freedom it offers, that deepens their friendship.
By William Steig
Sylvester collects pebbles – the prettier, the better. One day, the young donkey happens on a smooth, red pebble that grants wishes. But before he can think of a wish, he happens upon a lion and wishes to be a rock to protect himself, and the pebble falls out of his reach. Time passes and his parents mourn his loss. One day they picnic on a large rock (yep, that would be Sylvester) and they place the red pebble onto the rock, and Sylvester is able to wish himself back into his donkey self and hug his parents once again.
Life lesson: Gratitude
In this beautifully illustrated 1969 storybook, a young donkey learns to be careful what you wish for – and to be happy with what you already have. During his time as a rock, all that Sylvester longs for is to be with his family.
By E. B. White
A friendship is forged when farm girl Fern Arable saves a small pig from being slaughtered. Fern dotes on the pig, which she names Wilbur. Meanwhile, in the farmyard, Wilbur learns from the other animals his most likely fate. A selfless spider named Charlotte concocts a brilliant plan to show the world Wilbur’s uniqueness by stitching in her webs words to describe him.
Life lesson: Empathy
Each of the book’s main characters show a depth of understanding to the other’s plight and tries to ease their burdens. Fern literally rescues Wilbur from death, which he doesn’t initially understand. Charlotte then saves him, too, giving her own life to do so. Wilbur, in turn, pledges to take care of Charlotte’s little ones.
By Kevin Henkes
Carefree Chrysanthemum, a little mouse, loves the sound of her long name. That is, until she starts school. Her schoolmates mock her for it. Chrysanthemum withers under their teasing – until her favorite teacher praises her unusual name and even decides to name her own child Chrysanthemum.
Life lesson: Self-confidence
It’s not easy when others make fun of something you value, especially when it’s your name. This deceptively simple picture book, which became an instant classic when it was first published in 1991, teaches children to trust in their own ideals, even in the face of criticism from others.
By Anne Frank
Truthful and raw, teenage Anne Frank recorded her thoughts and feelings as she and her family, who were Jewish, were forced into hiding while living in German-occupied Holland during World War II. For two years Anne hid, eventually joined by another family and an elderly dentist. Anne catalogs the mixture of loneliness, simple joys and intense fear that come with living locked away. Anne and those hiding with her were eventually discovered and sent to concentration camps; only her father survived the Holocaust.
Life lesson: Resilience
Despite her incredibly difficult circumstances, Anne sought to keep herself grounded through writing out her feelings. And readers benefit from her hopeful words. “I don’t think about all the misery, but about the beauty that still remains,” said Anne in her journal.
By Shel Silverstein
With irreverent, clever poems and silly drawings to match, the words of Shel Silverstein are sure to delight kids – and adults – inspiring giggles all around. Silverstein’s poems cover a range of topics from cautionary tales on what happens when you don’t take the garbage out (that would be Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout, who ends up all alone) to the dangers of picking your nose (there’s a sharp-toothed nail in there!). These funny, sometimes rhyming snippets are even more fun when read aloud.
Life lesson: Relishing humor
Silverstein allows readers to laugh at themselves through exaggerated tales of other people (often children) who are misbehaving. Or even just off-the-wall comments that are tacked together as a mini story (like the folks on Mars who have the same faces as ours, just not in the same places).
By Dr. Seuss
A frequent opener to high school valedictorian speeches, this psychedelic-colored storybook encourages the reader to go out into the world and enjoy the challenges it can bring. After all, “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.”
Life lesson: Optimism
Readers can’t help but feel hopeful reading Dr. Seuss’ words about the world that awaits them. He expresses confidence in their abilities to make decisions for themselves and to reach their dreams.
By Harper Lee
Jean Louise “Scout” Finch narrates this story about her small, at first quiet, town in Depression-era Alabama. But when her lawyer father decides to defend a black man, Tom Robinson, against erroneous charges, Scout and her brother get a first-hand look at the townspeople’s true characters – both good and bad. Many people express anger at Atticus for representing Robinson, leading to the story’s dramatic climax where someone tries to kill the children. They’re saved by a reclusive neighbor.
Life lesson: Courage
Throughout the story, Scout, who’s 6 at the beginning, seeks to stand up for what she knows to be right even under difficult circumstances. She learns from her father the importance of being true to your morals.
By Frances Hodgson Burnett
At the beginning of the story, sour-tempered young Mary Lennox is left orphaned, then taken in by the wealthy-but-aloof Archibald Craven, a hunchback. Mr. Craven grieves for a loss of his own, his wife, who died several years prior to Mary’s arrival. Through Mary’s curiosity she befriends Colin Craven, Archibald’s son who’s thought to be sickly. Mary inspires Colin to attempt to walk and together they tend a garden tucked away on the Craven property. The garden becomes a metaphor of sorts for the main characters who start the story broken and forgotten and end it as a loving family.
Life lesson: Determination
Mary Lennox just won’t back down. When she’s told Colin won’t walk – ever – she refuses to believe it. And when others tell her she won’t find the hidden garden, she not only uncovers it but she builds it back up to its original glory with the help of friends.
If you’re looking for more stories that will get your child excited about reading, check out our list of books that showcase diversity and our roundup of local independent bookstores where you can find them.
Art by Fan Wu
This post was originally published in 2017 and is updated regularly.